You can do it. It took me a few years just to believe that a little kid from nowhere Michigan could be a radio personality or a musician or a writer. But, I learned you really can do it. Not everyone is going to be successful at it. But in the case of my books, the purpose and content of the writing don’t change if 10 people, 1,000 people or 100,000 people read it. So be bold and do what you love, anyway.
Rock & Roll has been extremely popular from the 50’s until the 2000’s. But with the rise of Hip Hop, Pop, and electronic dance music, it has seen mainstream decline. But some observers have cited that Rock & Roll may be on the verge of a comeback. The frustration and turmoil of the past few years align well with the message of angst, protest, and rebellion that rock & roll conveys. In this interview series called “Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback” we are talking to music artists, music groups, and music producers who are helping Rock & Roll make a comeback.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Steve Black.
Steve is a 31-year rock radio personality who has spent the last 19 years at the legendary WRIF in Detroit and 18 years as the host of the syndicated guitar show, The Chop Shop. He has conducted nearly 1,600 interviews with rock bands and musicians and is widely considered among the best interviewers in radio. Steve has also written 2 books: From Black to Light (2013) and The Last Child (2021). He also sits on the Board of Directors of the non-profit cancer support charity, Gilda’s Club (Detroit).
Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
Sure. I grew up in a small rural area in Michigan called Flushing Township. As a kid, I spent about 3 hours a day listening to music, or more accurately studying everything I heard and read on those old vinyl liner notes. By my teen years I began to realize I could “hear colors” or layers and details that others didn’t notice.
That level of detail and my passion for rock music led me to become an audio engineer, and by age of 23 I was working at my first radio station, Z-Rock in Flint.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always had a fascination with sound. I even remember when I was 8 or 9 years old wanting to be a foley artist for television or films. As I got older I wanted to become a record producer and as I pursued that, I joined a band and we started creating our own music. For a few years I thought that was what I really wanted to pursue, but the more time I spent working in radio, the more I felt at home, and within a couple of years, I realized that sharing music and entertaining people made me happier than “trying” to be a musician.
Are you able to share a story with us about what first attracted you to Rock & Roll in particular?
That’s almost like asking me what attracted me to oxygen. Rock music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I do know my first taste of music was country as my parents often had Merle Haggrd or Buck Owens on the stereo, but I quickly grew bored with that. Country music just didn’t move enough for me, and it always seem to lack energy.
I think it was the rebellion of youth that drove me to find my own music and when I discovered the makeup and costumes of Kiss, the bombast of Ted Nugent, and the danger and vaudevillian presentation of Alice Cooper, I never turned back.
Can you tell us the most interesting or most funny story that happened to you since you began your Rock & Roll career?
Very early on in my career, a local newspaper did an article on a small selection of DJs. One of the questions asked was “Who would you not like to interview?”. I decided to say Steve Vai, as I though his musical knowledge was so superior to mine that I would sound uneducated. Within days of that article being printed, wouldn’t you know that Steve Vai was scheduled to do an in-person interview with me at the radio station. The scheduled 15 minutes stretched into 60 or so minutes and Steve and I have been good friends from that moment on. He wrote the foreword of my first book, From Black to Light.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
A friend of mine in the industry, Al Pitrelli of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, shared his definition of luck with me. He called it “the point when preparation and opportunity meet”. So, my advice is to be prepared. An opportunity may never come, that is not something you can control, but you can control how much you know, understand, and are ready to put into action if an elusive opportunity does find you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The first person to give me a major full-time opportunity in radio was Joe Bevilacqua. Joe was my Program Director at WDZR in Detroit. Joe instructed me to use my boldness, he saw that my somewhat fearless attitude could be an asset. He told me if I went too far, he would let me know. But he understood that if I was questioning what was acceptable, or what I should or should not put on the air, then I wasn’t fully focused on the fun, the freedom, and the connection to the audience. Although there is certainly a line all broadcasters must be aware of, Joe allowed me to be daring or even conceited without worrying about offending people.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just released my 2nd book, but it is my first venture into science fiction. The Last Child is an exploration into what it might mean to be human if the species were threatened with extinction. It looks at the economic, spiritual, scientific, and political responses as humans try to extend life. For now, it is only available at my website, www.chopshopradio.com, but in October it will be added to Amazon. The response has been so positive that I’m already about 20% done with the follow-up book.
Are you able to summarize the message of Rock & Roll in a sentence? Why do you think that message is more relevant now than it’s been in a while?
Rock & Roll has evolved to mean different things, it’s a sound for sure, but it’s also an attitude, a vibe and a longing for a type of freedom that has been baptized in defiance. As for why I’m so confident that rock is in a good place? Well, turmoil, division, pain, and truth are all great breeding grounds for creativity and those are the places where rock thrives. I have spoken recently with rock stars who have echoed those thoughts including Alice Cooper who added, “there are a bunch of young kids right now who are listening to Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses, all around the world, and they’re going ‘Yeah, this is cool!’”. One of the newly emerging rock stars is Ayron Jones, and while talking with Rob Zombie guitarist, John 5 he told me, “This is what we need, we need talent like Mr. Jones who is killing it because he has great songs and that is number
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
In truth, people probably did tell me versions of these 5 things, but I was a “learn by experience” kid and teenager. After all, I was the person who loaded up a backpack and wandered around Europe for 7 months instead of going to college. But, I will say some of the lessons I did learn should have been taken to heart at a young age. So here they are:
- Life is too short to worry about the little things. I lost my 1st wife Sabrina to cancer at the age of 35, and as you can imagine when you’re dealing with life and death struggles, little inconveniences and silly arguments all seem so pointless.
- One of my favorite song lyrics, written by blues artist Cootie Stark, I believe, is: “I searched and I searched, but I never saw a U-Hall behind a hearse.” The meaning of course is that we should focus our efforts on the things we can take with us to an afterlife. Experiences, emotions, and crafting memories are what’s truly important.
- You can do it. It took me a few years just to believe that a little kid from nowhere Michigan could be a radio personality or a musician or a writer. But, I learned you really can do it. Not everyone is going to be successful at it. But in the case of my books, the purpose and content of the writing don’t change if 10 people, 1,000 people or 100,000 people read it. So be bold and do what you love, anyway.
- Don’t be so judgmental. I struggled with this one for a long time and I said things that I still regret to this day to people simply because they didn’t see the world through the same lens as me. For instance, I used to bash people for not choosing to be happy. It took a significant battle with depression for me to realize that mental health is not always a choice.
- Appreciate what you have. It is often more than you realize. In my case, I have had two of the best marriages and wives anyone could ever dream of. My time with Sabrina was limited and of course, someday my time with Gina will end as well, so I’m trying to drink up every day we have together while hoping it is a very long time.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If only there was a way to eradicate greed! That would solve so many problems. I realize that’s not an original idea, and perhaps Gene Rodenberry had a better vision of it than most of us but just think what humans would be capable of if our focus was on advancing the species instead of the individual.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my mottos and my friends are probably sick of me saying it, but I tell people all the time that “I love Primus (a quirky band with virtuoso musical abilities, weird imagery, imaginative lyrics and odd presentations) but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone loves Primus”. The meaning of course is that diversity is our strength and variety provides context and meaning.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Hello Brain May (Queen guitarist), Brian and I have a few things in common including a passion for melodic music, recording, and producing techniques, astrophysics and well, we’re both science nerds. We’ve never met (talked on the phone once back in the 90s) but with our combined talents and backgrounds we could co-host the best podcast in music/science history.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
www.chopshopradio.com is the central website. My Twitter account is @srblack and I’m Steveblack26 on Instagram.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!